Christians face attacks and restrictions in Jerusalem's Old City

Fewer than 10,000 Christians now live in the Old City, where worshippers celebrate Easter at Jesus's tomb

Clerics celebrate Palm Sunday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem's Old City. AFP
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As Christians celebrate Easter in Jerusalem’s Old City, clerics are charting an increase in attacks against priests and restrictions on worshippers.

“In the beginning it was just cursing or turning their head towards the wall, etc, and then they started to spit,” said Fr Koryoun Baghdasaryan, chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

“Recently, the last three, four years, they started to attack physically, to use violence against our clergymen,” said the priest, who has lived in Jerusalem since the 1990s.

An Armenian Orthodox priest required hospital treatment last year after being beaten up while walking to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was interred after his crucifixion.

Fr Koryoun blamed a small number of “Jewish extremists” for that assault and others, including, in November, a man repeatedly spitting on the entrance to the Armenians’ complex. He said the patriarchate obtained footage of the attack captured by CCTV from a restaurant, but no one was charged by police.

The force did not respond to a request to comment on the incident or other attacks against Christians in the Old City.

Fr Koryoun pressed Israel, which has occupied the Old City since 1967, to put tougher legislation in place to tackle hate crimes.

“Every time that I come out of my home, I am concerned. I am concerned that something will happen.”

He said that hate crimes against priests happen on a daily basis.

After a senior police officer as once witness to a person spitting on Fr Koryoun, the priest said he pursued the case until the aggressor paid a fine.

Fr Matheos Siopis, from the Greek Orthodox Church, said instances of hate speech or spitting happen often and have been getting worse over the past five to six years.

Christians are in dialogue with the police, but he prefers not to report incidents to the force.

“I will stay three, four hours there, complaining,” he said. “The outcome, most of it, is zero.”

Fewer than 10,000 Christians are thought to live in the Old City, which hosts sites sacred to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The Greek and Armenian Orthodox are among six denominations sharing custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the focal point of Easter celebrations.

This year, Catholics mark Easter a week before the Orthodox, who believe a flame is miraculously sparked from the tomb of Jesus.

More than 10,000 worshippers usually fill the church, clutching candles to receive the Holy Fire before it is sent forth to international Orthodox communities.

This year, police are limiting the event to 1,000 people, a move criticised by the Orthodox Patriarchate.

“The Patriarchate is fed up with police restrictions on freedom to worship and with its unacceptable methods of dealing with the God-given rights of Christians to practise rituals,” it said on Monday.

It also accused police of “violence against believers”, after scuffles last year between officers and worshippers trying to access the Holy Fire ceremony.

The new restrictions come after a crush last year at a Jewish celebration at Mount Meron, northern Israel, in which 45 people were killed at an event that drew an estimated 100,000 pilgrims.

Fr Matheos said church leaders had agreed to open emergency exits inside the Holy Sepulchre, but he saw no need for attendance to be limited.

“I’m here in Jerusalem 25 years, I’ve never had the experience of something serious happening in the Holy Fire,” he said.

Christians targeted by 'frequent attacks'

The frustration of the clergy comes months after church leaders united to press local authorities to safeguard Christian life in Jerusalem and across the Holy Land.

Christians have become the target of "frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups” over the past decade, church leaders said in December.

Israel’s foreign ministry described the statement as infuriating and said it could “lead to violence and bring harm to innocent people”, while asserting Christians can worship freely.

Fr Amjad Sabbara, a Catholic parish priest in the Old City, said the church has been doing its part to educate congregants on the importance of coexistence with other faiths.

“To respect the others and the differences that they have. And from your part, you have to do the same thing,” he said.

Despite facing abuse in the Old City and restrictions on worship, clergy point out that Christians have held on to their traditions while empires have risen and fallen around them.

“We have to be the candle that illuminates the people, with our example,” Fr Amjad said.

“We can continue to be the bridge of the Christians that comes from the times of Jesus Christ until now, and to maintain our presence.”

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Updated: April 17, 2022, 6:41 PM